I scoured the nation for warring families - and there aren't enough to go round

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The Independent Online
BETTY LOWENTHAL is a journalist who has worked as a television researcher and associate producer on "human interest" current affairs shows and documentaries for C4, the BBC and London Weekend Television.

IT DOES not surprise me to read about the fake participants on Vanessa or that they have been taken from showbusiness agencies. Fifteen years ago we would never have been encouraged to travel down such a route in search of a "sexy" story. The person, problem, and conflict would have to be genuine.

I do find it difficult to believe that Vanessa and the producers are so "amazed" by their staff's admission to using showbiz agencies. I am deeply cynical about the methods used to get "televisual" participants. These range from goading and flattery to emotional manipulation. TV producers and presenters are usually complicit in this process.

One cannot simply blame the researchers. How do you genuinely find people for a five-day-a-week show? To get good guests on a weekly show would be hard enough, but on a daily level - impossible. In the 1980s on Family Affairs, the first programme to deal with warring family factions that had their conflicts "resolved" in the studio, we did only six shows in all - just over a week's worth of Vanessa or Trisha. We had a handful of great researchers and worked hard for six months; even then it was difficult.

We put out trails and ads in the paper. We rang up friends of friends. We pounced on anyone who was remotely interested, wining and schmoozing them like Hollywood producers. We became desperate after weeks of trawling all these initially fruitless avenues. One researcher, who enviably got four case studies in the first five weeks, was unceremoniously sacked after it was discovered that she had invented them.

Then there was always the fear our guests would bottle out. In the very first show of Family Affairs, a working-class girl was to talk about her fiance's snobbish sister who disapproved of the marriage. She was persuaded before the show to be naturally gritty and northern but she was assassinated on screen by the studio audience. At the first-night party you could see the researcher was ashamed of her manipulation, but she eventually became a top TV producer.

How do you find genuine people? Good research skills don't come overnight. You need to be compassionate, caring and in touch with people. The researcher - as the bridge to the often pretentious and patronising world of the director and producer - is vital.

TV trails, which we used, can produce people with genuine problems but just as often they turn up lonely, desperate, attention-seeking individuals hooked on the idea of their five minutes of fame. Some have tried and succeeded on other programmes, and up the shock content of their stories to get booked.

As the influence of American shows deepens, and the British public has become less self-conscious, TV companies are desperate to find "sexier" people and stories. These shows are a self-publicist's dream. Many such people are cynical and know how to get on, often resulting in a freak show. But part of the problem is that America is massive and can afford to have so many chat shows like Jerry Springer and Ricki Lake. In the pocket-sized UK, the medium is running out of juice.

We may have the same problems but they cannot be aired in the same way. American society feeds off itself in a cannibalistic way; it has taken the British years just to air our problems to the nation. To copy the US without the content or context simply does not work. Ratings aside, these shows are at saturation point.

If you create an artificial show with an artificial premise then you will not have real people. But those running television seem intent on pushing us towards having no autonomous culture of our own. It is like British directors trying to make a Hollywood-style blockbuster. It doesn't work. It just looks cheap, the sort of plagiarised trash which British television has been producing and getting away with for too long.